The Long Embrace:  Raymond Chandler and the Woman He Loved by Judith Freeman (Pantheon, 978-0-375-42351-2)

For book groups looking to discuss a work of non-fiction, this title might work.  The reason why I say might is that I am not sure what weight Raymond Chandler carries in the world anymore.

When I was a young man attending college, I was primarily a science fiction reader.  I spent most of my undergraduate years taking political science courses and relaxing with survey courses in science fiction, fantasy and utopian fiction.  To be honest, I saw them as fun blow-off courses while the English majors were grieving over each word in each book. 

When I ran out of the fun stuff, I took a survey course with some generic name like Mystery and Detective Fiction.  The first book we read was The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler.  That novel still resonates with me today and I have re-read it many times including leading a book discussion or two.  I tell anyone who will listen that Raymond Chandler is my favorite dead author. 

My favorite living crime writer is Michael Connelly.  Oddly, Connelly is not shy about mentioning his love of Chandler and acknowledging the debt of gratitude he owes to Chandler for his interest in crime fiction and the use of the Los Angeles area as a base for his writing.

Now that I have spent the last thirty plus years obsessed by crime and mystery fiction, it seems logical to me that there would be an interest in a master craftsman like Raymond Chandler.  Obviously, so did Judith Freeman.  Freeman has written four novels prior to taking on Raymond Chandler.  Her interest in this writer was piqued when she began to read his letters, having polished off his novels in short order.  But what really grabbed her interest was the intriguing relationship that Raymond Chandler had with “Cissy.” 

Pearl Eugenia Hurlburt was born in Perry, Ohio, in 1870.  When she moved to New York City as a young woman, she altered her name to Cecilia, which was shortened to Cissy.  After a brief marriage to a salesman named Leon Brown Porcher, she married a classical pianist named Julian Pascal (alias:  Goodridge Bowen). 

Throughout his entire life, Chandler would claim he saved Cissy from an unhappy marriage.  While some biographers including Freeman cast doubt on that statement, no one has yet proven that Chandler, at the time he married Cissy, had absolutely any idea his wife was eighteen years older than he was.  Even at her passing, Chandler fills out her death certificate with the age of sixty-eight, when Cissy was really eighty-four.

Freeman works with that intriguing nugget and expands it into an analysis of their relationship.  There were a number of things that challenged what most observers said was a happy relationship.  They moved every six months and only bought there first permanent home late in their marriage.  Raymond Chandler was an alcoholic who needed a buzz in order to feel special.  Alcohol also made him randy and he turned occasionally in his life to other women to fulfill his self-image as a gentleman, yet ladies’ man. 

Of course, while this rather prim accountant like person with his older wife was living a nomadic and friendless life, he was writing some of the best hard-boiled fiction ever.  However, his success in America did not bring him the attention he wanted while he could not connect to the European audience who adored him.

Freeman also injects herself into the narrative.  Her attempt to view every home that Chandler shares with Cissy takes her on a crisscross journey across greater Los Angeles, into neighborhoods that resonate for her on a personal level, not just because of Chandler.  But the sense of excitement the reader shares with her when Freeman gains entrance into some of the homes is easily understood to any fan.  

If that does not intrigue a book discussion group, or the group is still dealing with Raymond Chandler as an unknown quantity, perhaps this book could be combined with a discussion of The Big Sleep and/or a viewing of the great Howard Hawks film of the same name.

Here are some suggested questions for a discussion of The Long Embrace:

How would you describe the relationship between Cissy and Chandler?

Did, or did not, Raymond Chandler understand the age difference between Cissy and himself?  Why does he put a false date on her death certificate?

Chandler needed alcohol to be created at periods of his life (The Blue Dahlia / Playback), yet he wrote one of his best novels (The Long Goodbye) sober, while Cissy was dying.  What defined his need for alcohol?

Why would Chandler burn all of Cissy’s letters after her death?

Chandler tried to commit suicide twice in his life?  What do these attempts tell you about the man?

Now that you know about the man, what does it explain about the literature?  How could this man have created Philip Marlowe?  What characteristics of Marlowe does Chandler share, and which does he not?



About the Author:

Gary Niebuhr is the author of Make Mine a Mystery (2003), Caught up in Crime (2009), and other readers' guides to mystery and detective fiction. He was a Booklist contributor from 2008-2014.

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